Monday, March 27, 2023

3.26.23 "Suddenly, a Noise!" Westminster Presbyterian Church, Pasadena, CA

Ezekiel 37.1-14; Romans 8.6-11

Whatever else can be said about the Christian Faith, this much is clear, at least to me:

The heart of the Christian Faith is hope … 

And hope means courage … the courage to face whatever - may come our way, however it shakes out for us … 

Life can be downright miserable … things go south in a heartbeat … we screw up badly, behave in the worst of ways … friends desert us, colleagues betray us … our car breaks down.

We all know the downside of life … we’ve been there … maybe we’re there right now, we’ll be there again … it’s just the way it is.

The Bible knows full well the crummy side of life … if it isn’t one thing, it’s another.

And so it shall be, to the end of the age …

But this much can be said … this much has to be said … there is hope, a focused, profound, hope, that transcends all other hopes … there is goodness at work in the universe … there is grace, there is mercy, there is love … from death to life, from bondage to freedom, from a valley of dry, dry, bones, to a new day rising.

Ezekiel knows hard times … he’s been with the people, in the long hike to Babylon … a trail of tears.

Let’s be honest … 

In the down side of life, we can lose our bearings … sadness overwhelms the soul … bitterness, resentment, about how things turn out, because sometimes, things turn out really crummy … 

And it’s not even our doing … the shifting sands of time and culture can throw us to the side of the road and leave us stranded … economic powers, political shifts, far beyond our control … time and tide wait for no man.

I keep thinking about the folks in Syria and Turkey … 50,000 dead and counting … so much lost … so much gone … it’ll take years to rebuild those cities and towns …  

The people in Ukraine - day in, day out, the threat of death … sorrow and fear at every turn of the corner … 

Ezekiel’s people in Babylon, lost … forlorn … broken:

Psalm 137 says it well …

By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?

The Psalm ends with some of the bitterest words every uttered by any human being, anywhere … a scream of rage, hurt, revenge - against the Babylonians, for what they’ve done …

Some read Psalm 137, and ask, “Why is this even in the Bible?” 

This hideous outburst, dripping with bitterness … it’s in the Bible, because the Bible is all about the human journey, the human story, our story … hopes and setback, defeat and victory, finding a way through, and finding our way blocked, the good … the bad … and the ugly.

The Bible is thoroughly honest; the Bible doesn’t pull its punches, it’s doesn’t shy away from the wretched things of life  … 

And still, always and forever, the singular, beautiful, message of hope and courage … don’t be afraid, I am with you always, to the end … I will never leave you or forsake you … there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God, neither in this life, or the life to come, neither trial nor travail, neither heartache nor loss … 

With caution, with patience, and kindness, never scolding anyone for feeling bad … never wagging a finger at anyone who’s discouraged … or blame anyone, for being in the Valley of the Shadow of Death … 

Preachers and priests can scold … but not so the Bible.

Not so the God and Father of our LORD Jesus Christ.

God walks with the wounded.

God rests with the weary.

God takes the hand of the lonely.

God waits for those who cannot go another step.

God is present within all the bleak and dreary corners of life.

On that day in Babylon, a vision: God takes Ezekiel to a valley, bleak and dreary, full of dry, dry, bones …

Can these bones live again? asks God.

What can Ezekiel say?

I imagine his face, a face drawn down by fatigue, a soul broken and bleeding … 

With a shrug of the shoulders, Ezekiel mumbles, Only you know, LORD … only you know!

Is this a statement of faith?

Or resignation?

I’m not sure what it is … I suspect it’s a shred of faith, a remnant of former days … what was earlier formed in Ezekiel’s childhood, the liturgies of the Temple … the songs of Zion … at his mother’s knee, at his fathers’s side.

But now? … what’s left?

A shrug of the shoulders, a bit of a mumble, Only you know, LORD … only you know.

And God says, Let me show you what I can do.

And with that, suddenly, a noise … bones and sinews, flesh and blood, come into being … 

Creation, all over again … when God, like a child playing with dirt, took a fistful and shaped it into a little figure.

God took that little figure and held it close to God’s face, and with a puff of breath, God breathed life into that little lump of dirt … and that day, God said, 

I created a remarkable being of dirt and divinity … 

for the dirt, mortal … 

mortal to the core, 

subject to all the infirmities and limits of flesh and bone … 

but driven by divinity, by impossible dreams, 

incredible hope, 

infinite reach for the stars above 

and the courts of heaven beyond … 

this creature of dirt and divinity 

will carry great burdens, 

experience untold joys and great pleasure, 

and will learn how to weep … 

this creature of dirt and divinity will do horrible things, and great things … 

this creature of dirt and divinity will harm and hurt … and heal and help …

 it will pray, it will curse; 

it will build, it will destroy; 

it will celebrate the truth, and tell big lies … 

it will be great, it will be terrible … it will be beautiful, it will be frightening; 

it will be a human being, a creature of dirt and divinity.

Can the bones, the dry, dry, bones, live again?

It’s the question of the ages …

Will Syria and Turkey rebuild?

Will the war in Ukraine come to an end?

Will our sadness find a way through?

Will our dreams come true?

It may take years … it may take ages … maybe only in eternity … 

It’s all held together … in Christ our LORD.

the dirt and the divinity … 

the visible and the invisible … 

all of time, all of eternity … 

the smallest elements of creation, and the distant of stars … 

the next moment, and billions and billions and billions of light years …

As I was putting all of this together … thinking, reading, writing … pondering the stories of Lent, thinking about all of you … my own life, my family, my stories …

This came to mind:

You can do it.

I believe in you.

You have the ability to make your world.

You will recover.

You will find your way.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

In the name of the Mother, the Daughter, and their Divine Presence.

In the name of all that’s good and beautiful and true.

In the name of every child’s hope, every child’s dream, every child’s love …

Yes, Yes, and Yes!

Hallelujah and Amen!

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

3.19.23 From Here to WHERE?" Westminster Presbyterian Church, Pasadena, CA

 1 Samuel 16.1-13; Ephesians 5.8-11

King Saul was not a mighty king … far from it.

He was a decent man, with promise, but in the end, it all fell apart … as things often do … 

No one knew what to do … including Saul … who fumed and fussed, got angry and made everyone afraid.

In the midst of it all, a man called Samuel … a great judge, a prophet, of man with a story.

His story is, as they say, one for the books.

His mother, Hannah, has no children.

She’s frustrated, hurt, and very sad. … she goes to Shiloh to pray, a holy place … again, and again, and again … 

In the course of time, the LORD grants her desire … she gives birth to her son, Samuel … which means God did it, or I borrowed him from the LORD. 

We’re not quite sure what his name means, but whatever it means, Samuel was a gift from God.

Hannah dedicates her son to God … she pledges him to be a Nazarite, sort of like a monk, a holy man.

He wouldn’t touch alcohol, he’d let his grow long, and never, ever, touch a corpse. 

As a young boy, he worked in the holy place of Shiloh, for the priest, Eli … one afternoon, or early evening, when Eli was napping, like older people do, Samuel laid down for some rest.

And then a voice, Samuel, Samuel.

Samuel exclaims, Here I am, and runs to Eli … 

But I didn’t call you, says Eli, go lay down again.

Three times, Samuel, Samuel … finally Eli says, The LORD may be calling you … if the call comes again, say this, Speak LORD, for your servant is listening.

The call came again, and Samuel listened.

The LORD lays out before this boy an immense project that will require of Samuel everything he is, everything he has, and then some … 

The Bible says: Samuel grew in stature, in favor with the LORD, and with the people … Samuel grows up to become one of the great Judges of Israel … and then in his old age, he appoints his sons as judges, to follow in his footsteps.

But his sons did not follow in his ways, they turned aside …; they took bribes and perverted justice. 

The elders of Israel came to Samuel, You’re old, Samuel, your sons aren’t worth a toot … we need a king, just like the other nations; a king to lead us. 

Samuel was unhappy … he said - you’ll go from the frying pan to the fire … 

A king has some value, but kings all behave pretty much the same way, said Samuel … it’ll be the same for you … the strong man, the king, the head honcho, will brag about it and be mean … he’ll demand everything from you, and you won’t like it, and you’ll complain to the LORD, you’ll regret your decision, and the LORD will ignore you.

The people turned a deaf ear to Samuel … they wanted a king, and no one, not even Samuel, was going to talk ‘em out of it.

Samuel talks to God, and God, Well all right, let’s do it!

As the story unfolds, God leads Samuel to a holy place, and there, Samuel meets Saul … a fine young man, handsome and strong … after some eating and drinking, Samuel takes out a flask of oil, and anoints Saul, King of Israel. Just like that.

It’s a troubled story from the start … no one is pleased; no one is satisfied … Saul tries his best, but in the end, he can’t manage it … Samuel turns on him … so does God … in the end … it’s a real mess. God directs Samuel to anoint a successor.

What? Say that again? What do you want me to do? Where do you want me to go?

Saul will find me out, and kill me.

Take it easy, says God.

God suggests a little slight of hand … take a heifer with you, tell folks your going to make a sacrifice to the LORD. And when you’re there, ask to see the sons of Jesse …

One-by-one, Jesse brings his sons to Samuel - they’re all fit to be king, strong and handsome, but the LORD doesn’t approve, so Samuel asks, Are all your sons here?

There was one more, a boy - he’s keeping the sheep, his name is David.

When David is brought to Samuel, the LORD says, He’s the one; anoint him now … and the Spirit of the LORD came upon the boy.

And now you know the rest of the story … 

From here to WHERE?

If you dare nothing, when the day is over, nothing is all you will have gained.”

God asks big things of each of us, actually … to be faithful to Christ, embrace his call for justice and peace, 

Centered in Christ: his courage in crossing boundaries, his determination to break the rules, when the rules no longer serve any real purpose … to heal the broken, defend the House of God, free the captives, clothe the naked, feed the hungry.

There is never an easy way to bring about the peace of God, the healing of the nations, justice for the oppressed … the rules needed to protect the people from the powerful.

That train derailment in Ohio? 

An accident waiting to happen … 

The railroads fought like mad to do away with regulations, inspections, and maintenance … in order to increase profits, please the shareholders, keep Wall Street happy. It was all about money.

The failure of Silicon Valley bank? 

Because the banks fought like mad to do away with regulations, inspections, and safe banking practices, in order to gain more wealth, more power.

A replay of what we saw in 1929, with a wild and wooly stock market … banks, hell-bent for leather.

It’s was all about money. And the love of money is the root of all evil.

Few of us will ever be called upon as Samuel was called … but all of us are called - to be mindful, to pay attention, know what’s going on … be informed, concerned, and available … 

Take up the mantle of responsibility, go the extra mile … pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and start all over again, as needed. 

It takes work.

It takes effort.

It takes diligence and determination.

We all have a roll to play … we’re all on the road from here to WHERE? 

To the kingdom of God.

Things to do, only we can do.

People to love, who belong to our sphere of influence.

Gardens to plant.

Children to rear.

A poem to write.

A song to sing.

Laughter to give.

Tears to be shared.

A book to read.

A life to be lived … 

Forever and a day.

Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day, our daily bread.

Hallelujah and Amen!

Sunday, March 12, 2023

3.12.23 "Between a Rock and a Hard Place" - Westminster Presbyterian Church, Pasadena, CA

 Exodus 17.1-7; John 4.5-15

Between a rock and hard place! 

That’s where Moses found himself that day in Rephidim.

Moses and the people on a journey … from bondage to freedom … death to life … Egypt to the Promised Land.

Just days before Rephidim, the manna miracle … manna in the morning … something to eat … gather it up for the day … don’t take too much - what you don’t eat will rot … gather only for the day … only on the 6th day, gather two-days worth, for on the Sabbath, there is rest … 

Some went out on the seventh day, and there was no manna to be found.

Now, at Rephidim, another problem - no water … quickly the people turn on Moses … what shall Moses do? between a rock and hard place.

Moses cries out to God, What am I am to do with this people?

The LORD said to Moses: keep on keepin’ on … take some of the elders with you … don’t go it alone, but go together … take the staff with which you struck the Nile River and turned it to blood … take what you’ve learned, take your experience … I’ll be standing in front of you, on a rock by Horeb … strike that rock with your staff, and there’ll be water aplenty for all the people.

Manna in the morning … water from a rock … a pillar of cloud by day, a column of fire by night … 

These ancient stories have proved their worth.

Millions have found hope and peace, encouragement and energy within these stories … between a rock and a hard place …  

They’re just stories, of course, but there’s something in these stories, something of God, something to inspire hope within us, to never give up, always move ahead, believe … believe with all our might … answers will be found, the impossible solved, hardship eased, the way forward revealed.

None of this is pollyannish … 

Every page of the Bible is stained with blood and tears … which for me is important … struggle and strife are the credentials of an author who claims to have something to say. 

Hardship goes a long way in shaping a human soul … sorrow and loss can wreck a life, but they can also hone the edge of thought and hope … the fires of hell can sharpen the tools of heaven … the worst of it can give birth to character and courage …

The Apostle Paul wrote: suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope, hope does not disappoint us … because God’s love has been given to us.

I’d not think twice about Paul if he were any less than the suffering he endured for the sake of Christ … 

Paul was a man of considerable intelligence … I wish he’s said some things differently, but most of what he said was said perfectly. 

Paul knew full well what it was to live between a rock and hard place … beaten and shipwrecked, imprisoned and often near death … danger at every turn of the road … and, he adds, my anxieties for all the churches.

Between a rock and a hard place …

The message of Lent … there’s nothing easy about Lent … because there’s nothing easy about life … 

Now, we have to be careful … difficulties vary from place-to-place … my difficulties pale in comparison to a Ukrainian family standing by the graves of eight family members, homes destroyed, lives threatened, all day long, throughout the night … weary for want of sleep … hungry and thirsty … never sure of anything … 

I want to be careful … nothing worse that someone in relative comfort preaching to the weary … 

But this can be said, with confidence: millions have read these ancient stories - and found encouragement, to take the next step … not all is lost … there is always a way forward … there is manna in the morning, and water from a rock.

In the center of these stories, as time unfolded, Jesus born of Mary … Jesus the Christ … the anointed one of God … 

Jesus on the Mt. of Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah there at his side … bright light around them … bright light, everywhere … a voice from heaven: This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well-pleased; listen to him!

Between a rock and hard place.

I love to read biography, and autobiography … very quickly, I learn that life isn’t easy, for anyone … trials and tribulations … hardship and heartache, disappointment and loss; illness and the death of loved ones … 

For reasons often mysterious, they make it through the ordeal, they come to the other side of sorrow, they live to tell the tale … they may well walk with a limp thereafter, their spirit scarred … their soul, tear-stained, yet wiser for the wear.

Why they’re still here is just as much a mystery to them as it is to anyone, who really thinks about it. 

Unexpected grace, the sudden appearance of an open door … the astonishing moment of - water from a rock.

Some believe in God, of course … or the Universe, with a capital U … or some other form of faith, or philosophy … in one way or the other, they all know - goodness came their way, as a gift - they didn’t invent it, and many will say, “I didn’t deserve it.”

Those who tell the truth know full-well how flawed they are … how human they are … they’re the first to raise their hand if someone asks, “Any flawed people here?” 

We live in a world full of cheap advice … much of it driven by religious publishing - to take advantage of human suffering and emotional need - books and seminars on how to make life easy, how to get ahead, how to be healthy, happy, and rich. 

Well, there’s always something to be learned, that’s true!

But life isn’t easy … 

We have to be careful when we read something, when we sign up for a seminar … we have to look for the gold not the glitter … look for truth, not some half-baked notions that, in the end, only make us feel worse, so we’ll buy the next book, and sign up for the next seminar.

The purpose of life is not to make life easy … but to make life count … 

Many years ago, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:

To laugh often and much;

To win the respect of intelligent

people and the affection of children;

To earn the appreciation of honest

critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; 

To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; 

To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; 

To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.

This is to have succeeded.

In ways we cannot fathom, in ways we cannot chart, the love of God prevails, in life, and in death … in the sunshine of our days, in the closing moments of our night … always and forever, the love of God, at work, in all things for good.

Between a rock and hard place … 

Amen and Amen!

Monday, March 6, 2023

3.5.23 "A Lantern in the Wind" - Westminster Presbyterian Church, Pasadena, CA

 Genesis 12.1-4; John 3.1-17

“A lantern in the wind" … 

A book title … the biography of Mary Ellen Chase, an American educator, teacher, scholar, and author. … one of the most important .. New England literary figures of the early twentieth century.

Mary Ellen Chase … a lantern in the wind.

I came across her name in a recent blog by Fr. Richard Rohr - and, by the way, if you want to engage with a first-rate writer of good thought and life, check out Fr. Richard Rohr, his blogs, his books … a gift for our times.

Fr. Rohr quoted May Ellen Chase in her summary of the Prophet Jeremiah … a man of intense passion, with a vision for what could be, with endless questions and challenges to the nation: “Why not?”

Jeremiah was my first real engagement with the Bible … Jeremiah caught my attention … his honesty, passion, impatience, reluctance, anger - anger at God for putting him up to this task, and just plain frustration with a nation bent on using God, but not loving God … and through it all, Jeremiah’s incredible connection to God.

God burns in his belly … a message for the nation, for the nations of the world …

But few are interested in what Jeremiah has to say.

Jeremiah … accused of treason, a troubler of kings and priests … arrested, imprisoned … tradition says he was stoned to death in Egypt by his own people.

On this, the Second Sunday of Lent, we do well to consider Jeremiah … this man of great intent and focus … 

He’s a man who believes God is right, love is the only way, truth has to be a part of the deal … 

And justice … always justice … 

Justice for those who are the first to suffer at the hands of the privileged and the powerful … 

Those who suffer the abuses of priest and king …

The poor of the land … the widow, the orphan, the stranger at the gate.

Jeremiah gives everything for the cause of God … this Lantern in the Wind … hanging from the highest heavens of hope, shining bright with the light of God, blowing in the wind … the winds of the Spirit, for sure, the fierce winds of hell … but the lantern is not loosened, the light shines … it dances across the land of Judah, and to this very day, it dances in the hearts and minds of God’s people, everywhere.

The light dances here, in the story and spirit of Westminster Presbyterian Church … literally, with all the light pouring through our windows … spiritually, the light of heaven falling upon our souls … the Spirit nudging us, calling us, challenging us …

To become lanterns in the wind …

But let’s step a bit - to the beginnings of our story … all the way back to Abram and Sarai … when God paid them a visit.

With an invitation … a command … a calling - to leave behind the usual and the commonplace … for all of us, in such times as ours, to set aside the familiar things, things we already know, what we trust, what we love, where we feel safe … go from your country, says God, your kindred, your father’s house … to a land I will show you! 

With a promise: I will make of you a great nation …   

Greatness … greatness is the possibility … greatness in love and faith, hope and goodness, peace and kindness, decency and mercy, courage and vision, imagination and invention … greatness to transcend the boundaries, greatness to heal the wounded, greatness to lift up the fallen, greatness, to restore the broken … greatness in our dreams and in our labors for a better world.

Not a day should run its course until we have wrestled with the angels of God, and what this greatness means … to question ourselves, search our souls, seek the kingdom of God … ask as Nicodemus does, How can this be?

Jesus says to Nicodemus: don’t pretend you don’t know … you know that you know … you have it all in your traditions and stories … you’ve got Moses and Jeremiah; you’ve got the law and the prophets - what you lack is courage … the courage to go a little deeper, a little higher  … this business of life requires some risk-taking … going further than you thought you could … 

Jesus says to Nicodemus: no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit …  

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity … the Psalmist writes: cleanse me from my sin … purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.

Ezekiel writes: I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness….

In the ancient world, water was precious … by water, Israel was saved from the fury of Pharaoh … by water, Noah’s ark rode out the storm … by water, Jesus is baptized in the Jordan River … at the wedding of Cana, water is turned into wine.

Of water and the Spirit … 

Jesus uses the image of wind to describe the work of the Spirit … something fresh and invigorating, a good wind blowing … wind, free and unpredictable, blowing here, blowing there … the Spirit of God is like the wind.

Wind is not ours to make or control … it is ours to receive.

By water and the Spirit … the material and the invisible … the daily routines of mindfulness and prayer … and the promise of God to be at work in all things for good.

By water and by the Spirit … 

Here we are, today, the second Sunday of Lent … with communion, the LORD’s Supper, the Eucharist … the bread, broken; the cup, poured … this is my body, this is my blood!

Just bread, just some juice … we say the words, and the living word of Christ is present … Christ is here, to make all things new.

A lantern in the wind … it’s light shines bright, the light of faith, hope, and love; grace, mercy, and peace … dancing all around us, in the corners of our mind, in the quiet places of our soul … places of hurt and fear, loneliness and insecurity … the wind is there, the lantern weaves and dances … there is light … we’re encouraged … called to the things of God … to walk with Abram and Sarai to a land only God can show us … to be born anew in the goodness of Christ … 

To become for the world, a lantern in the wind.

Amen and Amen!